August 14, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Lynn Henning

First-place Tigers still facing problems down the stretch

Tigers Manager Jim Leyland, left, consoles Miguel Cabrera as Cabrera recovers from sliding into first base for the third out during the 11th inning Tuesday. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

First-place baseball teams are supposed to be shining examples of baseball artistry and mechanical precision. But that isn’t how this impossibly complicated game works, as the Tigers would confirm.

A look, then, at problems and possible solutions as manager Jim Leyland’s team bores into the final six weeks of a wild playoff safari:

Problem: Miguel Cabrera can’t run.

Solution: It isn’t the disabled list, according to Tigers medical experts who insist Cabrera’s abdominal/hip situation isn’t being negatively affected by his daily shifts or by his halting jogs around the basepaths.

Cabrera’s good fortune is he isn’t dealing today with a DL vacation following his brave, but thoroughly reckless, attempt to slide into first base late in Tuesday night’s loss to the White Sox. It was an impulsive move by Cabrera as he tried to beat a throw from Addison Reed after Cabrera nearly de-limbed Reed on a line drive.

But in the same way as you expend heart and soul in scolding your kids for not looking both ways when they cross the street, the Tigers and Cabrera must make a collective vow for the ages: no more first-base slides.

Problem: Left-field offense is killing the Tigers.

Solution: Why a guy supposedly as wired to hit as Andy Dirks has not clicked is a strange case. But he is at .242, with an astoundingly bad OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .651. Teams are legally obligated to get more offense than that from their left fielder.

His sidekick in left, Matt Tuiasosopo, batted .222 in July and is swinging at a .133 clip in August.

The answer is for Dirks to straighten out, quickly, and to begin tattooing the ball with his old flair. That would be a cure-all scenario when he plays defense so trustily and when his range is one of the most overlooked pluses on the team.

But if nothing dramatic happens in the ensuing week or two, the Tigers will need to do what they’ve toyed with for some time now, and that is bring Nick Castellanos north from Triple A Toledo.

He will be bare-bones, at best, defensively, and could lean toward a liability because of the square mileage that spans Comerica Park’s left-field tract.

He has slumbered a bit at the plate during the second half at Toledo (.212 in July ahead of a .273 August), although on the Castellanos scale that’s not a problem. He turned 21 in March and is still dealing with a long schedule, which is why this week’s mini-vacation (he was hit beneath his right pinky finger by a pitch Saturday night) might have been well-timed.

The Tigers are at a point where their left-field offense must change. It’s a big reason why their bullpen takes the blame in so many low-scoring, extra-inning losses. It’s because one-ninth of their offense has been missing. The Castellanos callup could come well ahead of Sept. 1 when roster limits expand and Castellanos otherwise is stamped for arrival.

It is always possible Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief, might extract a bat from the waiver wire, but with the market still tight and so many teams chasing hitters in these closing weeks, the likelihood of a plus-player being claimed by the Tigers is remote when teams with lesser records are allowed a first shot at waiver-wire players.

And so figure on the Tigers’ options being internal. It’s their only realistic path to muscling up left field.

Problem: Alex Avila’s absence hurts the Tigers in multiple ways.

Solution: Get an all-clear from doctors who will vouch after this week’s examinations that Avila has been physically punished but shows zero effects of a concussion that otherwise could end his season and even jeopardize his future.

That’s the storyline the Tigers pray will play out this week.

The dark stories about athletes and concussions expand each year as medicine and team consciousness grows in treating and addressing one of the most insidious conditions in sports

Avila isn’t hitting (.198), but he hits with enough power to put crunch into even a low batting average. Offense, though, isn’t where the Tigers miss him. It’s behind the plate, calling pitches, knowing his cohort on the mound, understanding what he throws, and what the hitter in front of him can and can’t handle, and how to attack with a pitch sequence, where Avila makes monumental difference in a game.

The Tigers must have a healthy Avila aboard. Brayan Pena has been a gift, particularly with the bat. But in the other, more critical areas of a game, Avila has no Tigers peer.

Problem: Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque are coin-flips in late-game situations.

Solution: One call is relatively easy. Alburquerque is probably headed back to Toledo soon, and why it hasn’t yet happened is somewhat surprising. His control comes and goes. And when he overly fixates on the strike zone, his slider suffers, as does his fastball. He doesn’t have the steam on either pitch and they get whacked.

Evan Reed, Jose Ortega or the rehabilitating Octavio Dotel will be likely Alburquerque replacements, perhaps very soon.

Coke is a puzzle. Check that: Puzzles can generally be solved. Why a man with his repertoire isn’t faring better is a stunner, although location is everything and Coke hasn’t been hitting the spots or showing the bite that for so long made him irreplaceable.

The Tigers could use another left-handed reliever, for sure, although, in the same manner as hunting for a left-field bat figures to be a dry endeavor, good left-handed relievers aren’t likely to be hitting the Tigers’ waiver-wire doorstep.

Coke has to find the slot and the spots that made him so invaluable last postseason. A solid Coke steadies a bullpen that needs more than Drew Smyly as left-handed options.

Problem: Prince Fielder has one home run in his last 28 games.

Solution: Wait. Fielder will get his home runs. You don’t will, or wish for, home runs. You have to let them happen. It’s the product of taking good swings at good pitches, and Fielder still gets his share.

Torii Hunter alluded Tuesday to personal problems that might affect Fielder and his offense. No details were forthcoming. And even if they were, it would be difficult to understand how those problems have factored into an everyday hitter who gets his share of base hits but simply hasn’t been driving the ball over the fence.

The Tigers will be patient. Home runs will reappear. Fielder has been more rigid with his strike zone of late, which is the fastest way to reacquire your old offensive steam.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/Lynn_Henning